The Storied History of Communications Tech and the Satellite Phone
We all know and love satellite phones as the nifty handheld gadgets that have the ability to connect a person with anyone in the world, no matter the location. Satellite phones come in handy in myriad scenarios — from the backpacker lost and injured in the mountains to the combat journalist trying to send her story back home — and their constantly updating features are continuing to make them invaluable resources to any traveler.
This amazing piece of technology didn’t come from nothing. This is the story of the innovations that paved the way for the satellite phone, granting us the power to communicate with anyone, anytime, anywhere.
It would take a completely different post to discuss all the archaic methods of long distance communication like light reflection and smoke signals, they are no less important in the evolution of the satellite phone. These rudimentary techniques mark the realization of humankind that communication across vast distances was entirely possible, and they inspired a longing to create more efficient means of conveying messages.
Just as early cuneiform and hieroglyphics were the precursors to our modern alphabets, light and smoke manipulation — and later, pigeon post and pony express — spelled the beginning of a communication revolution.
Telegraphy is a branch of communication that works to deliver text-based messages — as opposed to verbal messages — over long distances. Optical telegraphy was built off the existing methods that required lines of sight, like torches or smoke. In the late 18th century, a French inventor established the first semaphore telegraph line, which is a fancy name for the most advanced type of optical telegraphy. Claude Chappe established a string of towers with a carefully designed rod which could be manipulated into almost 200 positions to send signals to neighboring towers faster than a messenger.
Chappe’s line, while derivative, was extremely influential on the work of an American named James Henry. Henry spent much of his life studying the emerging field of electrical energy, perfecting the electromagnet as well as inventing the very first electric relay, which allowed electricity to travel long distances. This technology laid the foundations for a handful of European and American inventors to experiment with the idea of an electrical telegraph.
The first wildly successful commercial telegraph was created and patented by American Samuel Morse. While he was far from the first scientist to establish telegraph lines, he developed the most efficient means of communication: Morse code. Famously, the first message Morse sent over telegraph went from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore and read “What hath God wrought.” Morse’s technology was so well received that it effectively ended the Pony Express in America.
While it’s still widely disputed who should take credit for the initial idea of “voice transmission over a wire,” Alexander Graham Bell was the first in America to be awarded a patent for the invention of the telephone. Bell worked tirelessly in his research on audio technology, from the harmonic telegraph to the phonautograph. While Bell lacked formal training of other scientists of his time, his mentorship by Joseph Henry encouraged him to continue experimenting with sound.
Eventually, in the late 19th century, Bell succeeded in transmitting sound — though not clear speech — over a wire. After his patent, researchers across the world worked to refine the technology and create systems that allowed for efficient and effective communication across vast distances. Landline telephone services quickly replaced telegraph lines, as the telegraph did with the Pony Express so many years before.
While telephones continued to evolve and change, the intensifying interest in space encouraged inventors to seek even more effective and far-reaching methods of communication. In 1960, America launched Echo 1 into the atmosphere as the first step into satellite communication technology. By today’s standards, Echo 1 seems rather rudimentary — it was a balloon carrying what amounted to a huge mirror — but it was supremely effective at relaying information from one point on the globe to another.
Written by Steve Manley